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It was 40 years ago that President Nixon launched the infamous War on Drugs that has since created a politically charged tizzy. Advocates of drug criminalization often argue that it is in the best interest of the people – both morally and medically – to completely ban all recreational drugs, which in theory would reduce drug usage and drug-related societal problems. There is virtually no room for debate over whether drugs are detrimental to the human body, but has the War on Drugs actually proven to be effective?
Evidence has heavily suggested no, in numerous illustrations.
In fact, the evidence shows that the effects have been the opposite of what was intended by the War on Drugs; drug usage has actually steadily increased. The Guardian asserted that “the anti-drug crusade will go down as among the greatest follies of modern times.” In 1980, 50,000 people were incarcerated on drug-related charges and today that number is up to more than half of a million. One-quarter of all prisoners are locked up for primarily nonviolent drug offenses, a statistic which disproportionately affects People of Color. Caucasian people use drugs at roughly the same rate, yet black men are arrested 13 times the rate of white men on drug charges.
The War on Drugs has also accrued huge costs to the economy. Federal, state and local governments collectively spend $50 billion per year combating drugs. Since Nixon launched the program 40 years ago, the government has spent a staggering $1 trillion.
Historically, the prohibition of substances has lead to a monumental increase in organized crime and the development of a black market, as seen during the prohibition of alcohol during the 1920s. The War on Drugs has analogously seen the creation of the drug cartels. An increase in violent crimes often goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of black markets, as sellers and consumers of illegal drugs are not able to seek help from legal professionals, so instead they turn to violence to alleviate problems.
Prohibition could also be increasing drug use in young people, as the government is unable to enforce age restrictions and various other limitations on illegal substances, as they can with alcohol and tobacco.
When making risky purchases of illegal drugs, consumers often resort to obtaining more concentrated and designer substances which can have dangerous side effects – in the 1920s, for example, the nation saw a fall in beer consumption and a rise in the sale of hard liquor. Because the drug market is currently illegal, the quality of the drugs cannot be regulated.
An interesting and relevant case study on the matter is Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs in 2001 after waging its own vicious war on drugs. Although drugs are still illegal, the nation shifted its drug control from the Justice Department to the Ministry of Health and developed an intense plan for treating drug addiction. A person found with less than a “10-day supply” of any drug is subject to the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction – a three-person committee usually comprised of a doctor, a lawyer and a social worker, who then recommend treatment to the user, or alternatively a small fine. The person caught does not receive any sort of major penalty.
The results so far of Portugal’s drug decriminalization have been revolutionary. As a result of its harsh drug policies throughout the 1980s, by 1999 almost 1% of the population was addicted to heroin and the number of drug-related AIDS deaths was the highest in the European Union. Today in Portugal HIV cases among drug users are down, and general drug use among young adults has also decreased. Deaths caused by overdose are now the second lowest in the EU and the use of designer drugs is lower than any other country that has been studied in the same vein. The decrease in drug-related diseases and overdoses is thought to be the result of users seeking out medical help without fear of legal ramifications.
Portugal has evidently illustrated that “decriminalization hasn’t had the severe consequences that its opponents predicted.”
Prohibition elicits moral questions in addition to economic and medical ones. The War on Drugs has facilitated the infringement of civil liberties; “no-knock warrants” and drug raids have killed many innocent bystanders. With drug usage, the only real harm is to the user – “in a free society the presumption must be that individuals, not government, get to decide what is in their own best interest.”
Although the US has far to go, Washington and Colorado have taken small steps in recent years; both states legalized marijuana in 2012 under state law. National public attitudes about marijuana have shifted over time in favor of legalization, yet policies on the matter have remained largely static nationally. When it comes to hard drugs, currently only 10% of Americans are for ending the prohibition of cocaine or heroin. As Portugal has exemplified in decriminalization and its own past war on drugs, prohibition has had the opposite of the desired outcome. But perhaps the US should strive to go further than Portugal’s example and instead legalize all substances; it is critical that the entire chain of drug production be fully regulated in order to keep the emergence of black markets down, and accordingly decrease violence and encourage users to seek medical attention when needed. The goals that drug prohibitionists often cite would be better achieved with legalization. The Federal government need only intervene to regulate quality and educate on drug usage, much in the way that it treats legal substances like alcohol and tobacco products.
The prospect of drug legalization merits many questions to consider; for example, where should hard drugs like heroin and methamphetamine be sold? Certainly not in regular grocery stores where most anyone would have access to them – including young people. There is surely no clear-cut path to legalization. It should of course be introduced gradually to allow ample time for adequate drug education, so as not to lead to societal and economic consequences. Perhaps an optimal solution would be to make a gradual move out of prohibition to decriminalization, and eventually to complete legalization.
Whether or not drugs eventually become entirely legal in the United States, it is necessary at the most fundamental level to cease “treating drug addiction as a moral problem – rather than a health problem,” just as Portugal has done.
Photo courtesy of CNN